ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. — There was perhaps no better day to epitomize the city of Buffalo than Wednesday, just a few days before Sean McDermott‘s Bills travel to Pittsburgh to face Mike Tomlin’s Steelers in a prime-time matchup Sunday with huge playoff implications (8:20 p.m. ET, NBC).
Buffalo absorbed several inches of snow overnight, complete with swirling winds. Yet, inside a large training facility in Orchard Park, a 9-4 team on the cusp of a playoff berth practiced as usual — snow or not.
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The Bills have transformed from a perennial bottom-feeding franchise into a contender in three years under McDermott — all built on the idea that if the right type of players showed up, the rest would take care of itself. It’s an idea McDermott learned as a former walk-on (and Tomlin’s teammate) at the College of William & Mary under former coach Jimmye Laycock.
The coach, who retired in 2018 after 39 seasons, believed his job was to help players reach their potential; he will be reminded of his success doing so Sunday night, when at least 50 William & Mary alumni will gather at Heinz Field for Tomlin and McDermott’s big matchup.
For McDermott, Tomlin and their former teammates, playing at William & Mary was a challenge because of the school’s rigorous academic curriculum and Laycock’s demanding standards — standards his pupils now demand in Buffalo and Pittsburgh.
Standards that helped McDermott revive the Bills.
“That’s not an accident that there’s a correlation there,” Laycock said. “That’s the way Sean was brought up and how he handled himself when he was here.”
A resounding message
At the beginning of each season, Laycock asked his players to stand in front of the team and commit to giving their all for the entire season — something he said resonated with his players years after they left.
It did for McDermott and Tomlin, who is arguably Laycock’s most widely-known former player.
An upperclassman during McDermott’s first couple years at William & Mary, Tomlin and McDermott often squared off on the practice field. Tomlin, an all-conference receiver, won his fair share of matchups against his teammates in the secondary — and was never afraid to let them know when he did.
All while McDermott, an all-conference defensive back, quietly took his medicine and learned from it.
“I’m probably not one of the more vocal people around, but I do watch, I do listen and I try to learn from the people I watch,” McDermott said. “Mike was one of the people that I watched and learned a lot from. We had our battles. … I was a walk-on and he was a scholarship athlete — he was established and I was just trying to get a pair of cleats back in the day.”
Said Tomlin: “Sean is a quality guy, always been laser-focused and hard-working. He really hasn’t changed much — I probably have changed more than he has because I was a little bit immature back in the day. I was just trying to have fun, you know?”
Their former Tribe teammate, Jason Steiner, backed Tomlin’s account of his own personality, calling Tomlin an “immediate, likable leader” who brought a high level of energy to the playing field and locker room.
“Some guys will talk trash and they’ll do it in a way that really gets you angry and makes you feel bad,” Steiner said. “[Tomlin] was good at doing it — letting you know he got the better of you — but he’d always do it in a way that didn’t make you feel bad about yourself. It made you laugh.”
A matter of time
Laycock figured McDermott was destined for coaching; Tomlin, not so much. He knew the eventual two-time Super Bowl champion was committed as a player but wasn’t sure if Tomlin would appreciate the all-encompassing lifestyle of a coach.
“It kind of surprised me that Mike told me he wanted to go into coaching,” Laycock said. “He’s intelligent, he knew football and was good at all that — I just didn’t know if he really understood the commitment of everything that was really involved in coaching. He said he did and that he wanted to do it, and stayed in touch all through the years. He continued to tell me how much he liked it.”
Tomlin entered the NFL as a defensive backs coach for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 2001 — roughly the same time McDermott was promoted from the Philadelphia Eagles‘ scouting staff onto defensive coordinator Jim Johnson’s staff.
The Steelers made Tomlin the franchise’s first African-American head coach in 2007. Ten years later, he would text Laycock with the news that the Bills gave McDermott the keys to their franchise — a pleasant surprise that Laycock figured was just a matter of time.
“Once Mike became a coordinator, I said he will be a head coach because he will get interviews,” he said. “And once he gets interviews, he’s going to impress you so much that someone’s going to hire him. Then Sean, he’s just too good for somebody to pass up. He paid his dues … I knew that would work.”
Doing things the right way
William & Mary possessed the “worst facilities in the conference” during McDermott’s time in Williamsburg, Virginia, Laycock said.
“We worked to develop players, not just recruit new ones every year and expect them to be the answer,” Laycock said. “We felt like if you had good, solid players in your program and you worked them — and you worked them the right way — that you would be successful.”
That sentiment should sound familiar to Bills fans — it’s nearly identical to McDermott’s philosophy in Buffalo, where he and general manager Brandon Beane have built a roster full of players who were discarded by other teams.
A standout defensive back and wrestler at La Salle College High School just outside Philadelphia, McDermott redshirted his first year with Laycock in 1993. He started the 1995 season-opener against Virginia, recording 21 tackles and recovering a fumble. He was granted a scholarship before graduating in 1998 — a reward for buying into Laycock’s philosophy.
“When Sean earned his scholarship, that was a big, big thing for him — but he earned it,” Laycock said. “You’ve got guys that came in here, they learned discipline, they learned the work ethic and doing things right.”
Said McDermott: “It’s a part of me, you know what I’m saying? That fabric that got woven into me for five years — and really six, having coached there my GA year — became a part of me.
“There’s a makeup and when you put a team together like coach Laycock did … the ‘best’ team isn’t always the most talented team. It’s like putting pieces of the puzzle together — they’ve got to fit together. That’s what generates the chemistry that we have in our locker room.”
Like so many lessons young adults learn, Laycock’s principles weren’t fully appreciated until years later, but certainly made an impact.
“I don’t think any of us realized it when we were there — it’s one of those principles you hear about but when you’re a young person living it, you like, ‘yeah, yeah, whatever,'” Tomlin said. “Looking back at it now and seeing some of the success of some of my friends in all walks of life, I gained a better appreciation for the experience. It’s just about putting you in an environment around smart, innovative kids and letting you grow together.
“When I think about many of my teammates, Sean and I get a lot of attention because of the jobs we hold, but we have many teammates that are doing awesome things in many walks of life, that are just as ‘successful’ or more ‘successful’ than we are.”
ESPN Steelers reporter Brooke Pryor contributed to this story.